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MILWAUKEE, Wis. — In a dimly-lit classroom in downtown Milwaukee, nine aspiring early childhood teachers scribbled notes as they watched a video about the capabilities of 4-month-olds.

Babies at that age “can now follow an object 180 degrees,” the narrator explained, as a baby on screen watched a small toy move from side to side. After a few more scenes showing babies cooing, screeching and batting at objects, Yvette Ardis, an instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC), hit pause. “What I’m hoping you don’t do in your classrooms is put the kids in those exersaucers or swings,” she said, motioning toward the screen where a baby had just been shown sitting in such a device.

“Unless you need it because you’re feeding, and you need it so that everyone is safe, okay?” she said. “You are there to be engaged with your kids.”

Aspiring teachers watch a video about infant development at Milwaukee Area Technical College. The college is participating in a dual enrollment program to attract high school students to early ed teaching jobs. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

At a table in the front of the classroom, Molly Scharninghausen, 18, nodded and typed some notes on her computer. Scharninghausen is still in high school, but three times a week she rides the bus downtown to attend classes at MATC as part of the first, small cohort of a new early childhood education dual enrollment program. The program is an effort to address a growing crisis — the shrinking early childhood workforce — that has worsened nationwide during the pandemic.  

To spark interest in early childhood careers among a younger generation, the dual enrollment initiative was created as a partnership between local high schools, MATC, the state Department of Workforce Development and Next Door, a Milwaukee-based early childhood provider and nonprofit. It also aims to create a pipeline of early childhood educators from the local community.

Child care programs nationwide are hemorrhaging teachers and other workers. Between January 2020 and January 2022, around 120,000 child care workers left the industry. Former child care employees and current program directors say the departures are often for jobs with better pay and benefits. At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to attract new workers into early ed. The jobs are physically demanding and require deep knowledge of child development, yet often pay less than positions in retail or restaurants.

Between January 2020 and January 2022, around 120,000 child care workers left the industry.

BSL Data Labs

“It’s gotten worse as other industries have been able to respond by increasing salaries, to be able to recruit and retain,” said Lauren Hogan, managing director of policy and professional advancement at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Normally when industries experience a worker shortage, industry officials know there’s “a group of willing workers who are graduating now,” said Rebecca Berlin, chief learning officer at the early childhood nonprofit Start Early. “But that doesn’t exist” in early childhood, she added. “As I begin to think about this pipeline, I really think you’re going to start seeing the early childhood system crumble.”

Related: We struggle to measure quality child care — and even more to fund it

Public-private partnerships and early ed workforce development initiatives, like the dual enrollment program in Milwaukee, offer a model for tackling the nation’s persistent early childhood workforce issues. Though the dual enrollment program is starting with just a few students, officials involved with the work in Wisconsin say this and other workforce programs have the potential to produce graduates who are able to fill empty teaching positions in child care centers across the state, and nationwide.

At a time when classrooms are sitting empty due to a lack of teachers, including at Next Door’s centers, even just a few new, qualified graduates can result in a child care classroom being able to open, or stay open. That could mean up to a dozen or more families now have reliable child care.

The Milwaukee program is structured to make it as easy as possible to explore early childhood as a career field, said Jonathan Feld, director of high school relations for Milwaukee Area Technical College. “To have the opportunity to do this in high school and figure out if a person wants to continue with this or not in an environment that doesn’t cost them, that’s hugely advantageous and powerful,” he said.

Molly Scharninghausen, 18, was eager to enroll in the early ed dual-enrollment program and get a jump start on her career as an educator. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

When Scharninghausen first heard about the program last fall, she was feeling stuck and bored in high school. She had been contemplating a career as an English teacher, but the opportunity to start college classes immediately, learn about young children and work in an early childhood classroom while finishing her senior year was too good to pass up.

She enrolled in the program in early 2022. While she is working toward her professional credential to teach infants and toddlers, she is also eligible to work as a teacher’s aide at one of Next Door’s two child care centers. After she earns her certificate, she will be a priority candidate for associate teacher positions at those centers.

“This definitely has opened so many doors,” she said.

It has become exceedingly clear over the last two years that America’s child care industry is in crisis, desperately in need of more teachers to keep child care programs open and of more funds to boost salaries for chronically underpaid early childhood workers. Even in the years before the pandemic, the early ed workforce was struggling. Child care workers made an average of $11.65 an hour in 2019, about one-third the average pay of a kindergarten teacher, resulting in widespread economic insecurity among child care employees and high turnover rates.

From 2013 to 2018 only a handful of states reported a shortage of early ed teachers. That changed after Covid: A July 2021 survey of childcare centers and homes conducted by National Association for the Education of Young Children found shortages in almost every state. Child care programs across the country reported fewer applicants for jobs. Child care directors said many of those who do apply lack proper qualifications.

Debra Tucker walks her students down a hallway at Next Door. Tucker has been teaching at the center for 17 years. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

Additional federal funding to boost early educator compensation was proposed in President Biden’s Build Back Better bill. But the bill has stalled in Congress. Experts say it’s critical to address salary issues, or teachers will continue to leave the field, despite their training and qualifications. “We absolutely need to build this pipeline of folks coming in,” said Hogan from NAEYC. “Recruitment is a great strategy when paired with a retention strategy that is a compensation strategy.”

Next Door officials, like many early ed teachers and advocates, were hopeful Build Back Better would bring some relief. But the problems are too urgent to wait. Over the past few years, the nonprofit has forged partnerships with community partners like MATC and Milwaukee Public Schools, philanthropies like the American Family Institute and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, and with Employ Milwaukee, the local workforce development board. The nonprofit has also increased its minimum teacher pay to $15 an hour and offers benefits, something that is rare among the early ed workforce.

Related: It’s ‘unconscionable’: We depend on child care workers to provide high-quality care to our children. But many of those workers can’t afford food and rent

The partnerships are attempting to stimulate interest in the field, increase teacher pay and simplify routes for diverse early educators to earn credentials and degrees.

Next Door now offers six, no-cost routes — financed by braiding together funding from public and private sources — to various credentials or degrees and teaching positions. These include a pre-apprenticeship program for adults with little to no experience in child care. Aspiring teachers in that route can go through in-house training and qualify to work as an assistant teacher.

Educators who have completed that program say the “earn while you learn” model was essential to getting a quick start on their career. After volunteering at Next Door as a teenager and considering various career routes working with children, Aleyla Williams, 21, realized she wanted to pursue the credential needed to teach infants and toddlers. In December 2021, she started at Next Door’s pre-apprentice program and spent almost two months working through short courses, led by Next Door coaches, observing classrooms and working with teachers to learn the ins and outs of child care. “They don’t want to throw you in, they make sure you do have the knowledge,” Williams said.  

Williams, who is now an assistant teacher, isn’t sure how she would have earned the credential that allowed her to get her foot in the door if it wasn’t through this route, but she suspects it would have taken more time and money. Research shows those two factors can be common barriers to early educators attempting to earn credentials or degrees to further their careers.

A student practices spelling his name with the help of David Tate, a co-teacher at Next Door. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

In addition to fronting the cost of their workforce development programs, Next Door offers financial support, free technology to help complete coursework, mental health resources and dedicated paid time off during the week so employees can step out of the classroom and take courses or work on homework, to make it as easy possible for employees to complete their education.

“We try our best to really help people overcome whatever obstacles they encounter, so that they can really fully participate in the program and be successful,” said Erica Metcalfe, coordinator of the pathways program at Next Door.

Educators already working at Next Door can also further their education at no cost while continuing to work. They can take courses with MATC to earn a certificate, earn a technical diploma through an apprenticeship route or earn an associate’s degree at the college. Educators receive academic support, access to technology, if needed, and classroom coaching. At the completion of each pathway, teachers are eligible for a promotion and pay raise.

On a February morning at Next Door’s 29th Street center, teacher Debra Tucker led three 2-year-olds down a hallway to a colorful, ocean-themed playroom. The small group sang “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” as they walked. As soon as Tucker opened the playroom door, the toddlers erupted into screams of excitement and ran circles around the room. One child pulled out a basket of plastic bowling pins from a shelf.

“How about we set up the pins!” Tucker said. “How many? One, two, three, four five,” she counted slowly as the toddlers counted along and put the pins in a cluster on the ground.

Tucker, who started working at Next Door 17 years ago as an assistant teacher, has taken countless training sessions and classes over her years as an educator, but none added up to a credential or degree. She wanted to pursue a formal education and earn a higher position at work, but trying to go to school while working and raising her own children was a challenge.

“I did enroll at MATC and started taking some classes, but then life happened,” Tucker said. “So, I kind of start, stop, start, stop.”

A student helps clean up toys in a play area at Next Door’s 29th Street location. Credit: Camilla Forte/The Hechinger Report

Last year, Tucker applied to join one of Next Door’s first cohorts of apprentices. The apprenticeship program uses a newly-created state model and federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funds to help cover costs so teachers can take classes toward a state-recognized Early Childcare Educator Technical Diploma and earn Apprenticeship Completion Program Certificate in the process. Tucker was able to apply some of her prior courses to the requirements and, after taking some additional classes at MATC, completed the program in one year at no cost.

“I’m so grateful because financially, that would have been a burden on me to try to pay for all of that,” Tucker said. Now, she is a lead teacher, making a higher salary and planning to pursue her associate degree with the help of Next Door.

Next Door’s apprenticeship program is part of a larger initiative launched by the state of Wisconsin in 2021 in an effort to address early ed worker shortages. The state is facing a “worker quantity shortage” due to low birth rates, higher retirement rates and the pandemic, said Amy Pechacek, secretary-designee of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. Last year, the state launched the early childhood apprenticeship model as a way for local communities to address early childhood teacher shortages, as well as general workforce quantity issues. “We want to keep our talent pipeline here, we didn’t want to have a brain drain,” Pechacek said.

“To have the opportunity to do this in high school and figure out if a person wants to continue with this or not in an environment that doesn’t cost them, that’s hugely advantageous and powerful.”

Jonathan Feld, director of high school relations for Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Nationwide, apprenticeship models have become a popular route for early educators, especially as a way to get more people through training and into classrooms while earning an income.

In Milwaukee, the apprenticeship program is not just benefitting teachers. Next Door’s leaders hope it will help them fill empty teaching positions. “We’re still in a crisis, we don’t have enough people to open some of those classrooms,” said Tracey Sparrow, president of Next Door.

Long term, Sparrow said she hopes the program will also bolster the early ed industry across Milwaukee. “This is the most important work, working with children,” she added. “We need people at Next Door, but we also recognize that we need them for the community.”

Some teachers have so much experience or prior education, sitting in a formal classroom is superfluous. Next Door’s workforce development efforts try to acknowledge this experience, too.

Next Door teacher Alicia Benson, 46, started at the nonprofit in 2016 as a bus driver, but later took a role as a teacher’s aide at one of the centers, a position she qualified for due to credentials she had earned earlier while at a different child care facility.

Benson left Next Door in 2018 to work in transportation, a job that allowed her to make more money to cover medical expenses for a family member. But, before long, Benson felt a longing to return to the classroom. “I cannot stay away from the children. I cannot,” Benson said. “There’s nothing like it. Shaping the future, there’s nothing like it.”

The teachers who stayed

In March 2021, Benson returned as an assistant teacher, but she yearned to lead her own classroom and knew she would need more qualifications to do so. She decided to pursue her associate degree through a route that awards college credits to teachers based on prior learning and knowledge. Instead of attending classes, Benson is working to create portfolios that show mastery of certain skills and knowledge that match up with the skills she would learn in specific early ed college courses.

If it weren’t for this opportunity, which is free for Benson, she said it’s likely she would have stayed in her current role and not pursued her degree. “I don’t want to go back to school,” Benson said. “But when the company that you work for is offering these programs … It’s a perfect opportunity.”

These efforts to connect with potential teachers and support them as they enter the classroom could be critical to boosting the workforce, especially if the programs target potential teachers who may not otherwise know how to start.

Related: A little-known program could be a model for how to spend billions in federal money on childcare

In Milwaukee, high school senior Xaviel Jones found out about the early childhood dual enrollment program after he received a flyer in the mail. Jones had been interested in working with children for years, and the program seemed the best way to learn more about child development and get into a job quickly. It was also hard to say no to free tuition, a free computer and free books and transportation.

Jones enrolled in the program early this year. “I want a job in the beginning where, like, I will have an impact. I will see the impact,” he said. In late February, he applied for a job as a teacher’s aide at Next Door. In March, he was hired and was ready to begin his teaching career. “You don’t get many chances of having a job like this, that you want, especially early on,” he said.

This story about the child care worker shortage was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Jackie Mader supervises all photo and multimedia use, covers early childhood education and writes the early ed newsletter. In her ten years at Hechinger, she has covered a range of topics including teacher...

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